He recalls powerful engines belching thick puffs of dense gray smoke as they chugged in and out of town. He recollects the echoes of wailing train whistles ricocheting throughout the Tennessee Valley. Mark Womack's memory is filled with vivid images, spellbinding stories, and the intricate details of a lost era-the days when trains and rails ruled the Scenic City.
"When I was a young boy, my dad took my younger brother and me to the Murfreesboro depot to see the magnificent Dixie Flyer come in from Chicago, and from then on, I was hooked," explains Womack, a retired railroader, a rail hobbyist, and a bona fide railroad historian. "When I was 17 years old, I landed a job with the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis line. That was way back in 1941, the same year that Glenn Miller and his orchestra released 'Chattanooga Choo Choo.'"
Womack's illustrious career spanned 42 years as he worked for many rail lines and held many different positions such as freight agent, assistant trainmaster and rules examiner. He experienced the vibrant period when Chattanooga's depots bustled daily with hundreds of travelers, and he witnessed the steady decline of train travel to a solemn day in 1971 when the last L&N passenger train-The Georgian-rolled slowly away from Union Station with Womack on board.
"Our city was the gateway to the South-a train city with rails radiating in all different directions," notes the East Ridge railroad buff. "Those tracks represented connections to other communities. Our city owes so much of its success and prosperity to the railroads."
Indeed, trains played a significant role in Chattanooga's history, and as a result, our city boasts captivating attractions and hosts celebratory events commemorating the Golden Age of Railroading. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, the largest operating historic railroad in the Southeast, offers guests the rare experience of riding-and dining aboard-a vintage passenger train. Rail fans young and old can enjoy interesting jaunts to historic Chickamauga, to Copperhill and through the breathtaking scenery of the lower Hiawassee River gorge. Missionary Ridge Local wows crowds with short daily excursions aboard cars pulled by a coalburning steam locomotive.
The train rolls across four bridges and through the Missionary Ridge Tunnel before pausing at the East Chattanooga Depot where riders tour a railroad restoration and maintenance shop and behold the impressive feat of rotating the locomotive on an authentic turntable.
"This year, we're celebrating TVRM's 50th anniversary with Railfest-a festival we're hosting on Labor Day weekend," says Steve Freer, the museum's marketing director. "We'll have a wide variety of live musical entertainment, fascinating railroad exhibits and demonstrations, Civil War activities and of course, train rides."
The Railfest lineup also includes rather eclectic activities such as hobo storytelling with Chattanooga's master raconteur, Jim Pfitzer, an entertaining performance by the Zinghoppers and an outdoor movie presentation of "The Great Locomotive Chase." "The film chronicles the Civil War saga of Andrews' Raiders stealing a locomotive in Big Shanty, Georgia in order to disrupt the military supply line between Atlanta and Chattanooga," Freer says. "We're also excited about the premier of 'Fifty Years of Steam in the Valley,' an exhibit featuring the photography of John W. Coniglio, as well as artifacts from TVRM's rich history."
Another link to Chattanooga's rich railroad-related past is the Chattanooga Choo Choo on Market Street. The 24-acre hotel and convention complex is situated in and around the renovated and restored Terminal Station. "It's a magnificent structure that draws thousands of visitors each year," remarks Choo Choo general manager Jim Bambrey. "The Terminal Station was built in 1909-the heyday of train travel. The centerpiece, of course, is the towering 85-foot dome ceiling that welcomed the travelers of up to 50 passenger trains each day."
The terminal's grand dome room is now the hotel's lobby, and the terminal's baggage room is now home to the Station House Restaurant, known for its savory cuisine and its singing waiters and waitresses. Guests can spend a unique night of slumber onboard one of the hotel's 48 restored Victorian train cars that fuse the romance of yesteryear with modern day conveniences such as television and Wi-Fi.
"Here at the Choo Choo, we honor the past every day," notes Bambrey. "The Chattanooga Choo Choo engine on display is the same type of wood-burning train used on that first run from Cincinnati to Chattanooga in 1880. And we have original memorabilia on display, too. The original oak ticket office sign still hangs on the wall as a reminder of that glorious time, and we still have an original switch-a mechanism used to direct the trains."
Although the glory days of passenger trains are far behind us, traces of Chattanooga's railroad heritage have been preserved throughout the city. Through our landmarks, museums and restored buildings, it's easy to climb aboard and touch a piece of the past.
TVRM proudly presents Fifty Years of Steam in the Valley, an exhibit opening August 12 and running through early November featuring 30 individual train photographs by local photographer John W. Coniglio. "The photos that will be on display were taken primarily between 1970 and 2002," Coniglio remarks. "Most are from black and white negatives."
Photographing railroad movements is a difficult and unpredictable art. "The picture-that instant when background context, light and placement of train in the composition are as good as they are going to be-is there, then gone in a flash," he says.
Although he photographs many different subjects, his train photos are especially evocative. Coniglio's prints tell elaborate stories of ancient machines rolling through industrial cityscapes and along picturesque countrysides. "Their importance is that by documenting a railroad, a family, a city or a war, I am recording what things were like at a specific time. Hopefully, we build on the good and learn from the mistakes," he says.